[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than a million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we discuss becoming a super learner. We dig into questions that I pondered for a long time; does speed reading work? Can we actually speed read and increase our reading comprehension? Are there strategies you can use to improve your memory? Perhaps, most importantly, how can you align the way you think, learn and remember with the way your brain actually operates? We go into this and much more with our guest, Jonathan Levi.
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In our previous episode, we discussed how money messes with your brain. We look into the obvious traps we fall into when we think about money. Examine how cultural influences shape our financial choices and explore the key biases that underpin the most common and dangerous financial mistakes that you are most likely to make, with our guest Jeff Kreisler. If you want to understand how you often misunderstand money, listen to that episode.
[0:02:49.1] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest on the show, Jonathan Levi. Jonathan is an Author, Learning Expert and Founder of SuperHuman Enterprises. He is the author of the book Become a SuperLearner and has helped over a 120,000 students improve their learning methodology through his online courses. He’s been featured on the Ted stage and his work have been published in Ink, The Wall Street Journal and much more.
Jonathan, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:13.7] JL: Thanks so much for having me. It’s a pleasure.
[0:03:16.1] MB: Well, we’re very excited to have you on here today. I’d love to start out, but I’ve got a ton of questions and fascinated with memory and speed reading and all these things. I’m curious, how did your own personal journey with becoming a memory expert begin?
[0:03:31.2] JL: Yeah, that’s a great question Matt. See, the way I always tell the story is I don’t think you devote your career to becoming an expert in memory and improved learning, because you’re seen as a bright student growing up. I think it takes a certain amount of coming home with tears streaming down your face. That was certainly my case. I was always a problem student.
I was a bright kid, to hear my parents tell the story, but I had a lot of difficulties with learning in an institutional environment. By the time I was eight, it was no longer acute anymore that I couldn’t sit still and my parents had me tested for ADD. Rather than condemning me and having it put on my record, they had me tested very quietly and privately and then dealt with it on their own.
I spent a lot of my youth and student career just drugged out on real and which to my parents’ defense turn out to be a really, really good thing, because it was the only way that I got through high school, university and graduate school. That was basically the way that I thought that I had to learn. I thought that I needed drugs to learn. I thought that I was never going to be an exceptional student, except for in English essentially. I thought that in order to succeed in the framework that we’re all forced to learn in the school system, that’s what it would take.
I was very fortunate that I – before going into my master’s degree, which was going to be very condensed one-year program, or 10-month program, where you do two years’ worth of course work, I was very, very fortunate that I met someone who I would later call a super learner. The story goes that he had done a couple of PhDs in machine learning and information systems and coincidentally had gotten married to a woman who was working with special needs children, specifically children with dyslexia, memory issues.
The two of them sat down when they had kids and said, “Can we build a methodology to ensure that our kids are able to learn effectively?” They studied a lot of the greats, the Tony Buzan’s, all the way back to the Greeks, and the memory techniques that even Aristotle was doing. They started teaching them not only to their kids, but to other children that were in their lives, in their professional background and career.
I was very, very lucky that I managed to run into this person while doing an unpaid internship before my MBA. I immediately said, “Well, you know what? I don’t believe in all that stuff. I tried the Evelyn Wood speed reading program. I tried the PX method and none of the stuff actually works.” They said, “What do you have to lose?” Well, they gave me a money-back guarantee and I sat down with them for six weeks and did intensive one-on-one tutoring.
Then I went off to my MBA and I was just a totally changed animal. I won’t say that I was able to sit through 12 hours of course work with Ritalin, but I was able to actually for the first time in my life do all the reading material, keep up with other students and enjoy what I was learning and memorize things much faster.
To make a long story short, after finishing my MBA, I didn’t know what I would do, where I would go and what kind of entrepreneurial opportunity I would pursue. I decided to try and see if I could take their lessons and put them online, apply the things that I had learned, such as speed reading and memory to learning more about this field.
I did more research. I did more studies. I picked up more techniques and obviously did a good bit of learning about online courses and how to run an online business and many, many other things. We’re very blessed to have success right out of the gate, because I think this is something that so many people want to learn and need to learn.
Also, I think that the proofs and the pudding I sat down and over the course of a weekend read everything I could about how these marketplace websites work and how online courses work, and how do you record videos and how do you edit videos and all the stuff. The results don’t lie, I suppose. From then until now over the last four years as you’ve said, we’ve gotten about a 120,000 students through the program. We have courses at every different level and a book and a weekly podcast. Yeah, that’s our mission is to help people learn anything and everything faster and with more ease.
[0:07:47.5] MB: I remember you sharing an interesting anecdote in your Ted Talk, where you talked about a friend of yours who could read I think 2,000 words a minute?
[0:07:57.5] JL: Yeah, that was the gentleman who introduced me to his wife. Now 2,000 words per minute I do want to say is not a 100% retention. It’s a peak speed, of course. Probably his every day reading speed is more like 900 to 1,200 words a minute. Yeah, to give people a little bit of context, your average college graduate in their native language reads about 250 words per minute.
I at my fastest ever when I was reading reams of paper every day and I was really in my best shape, I was reading about 750 to 800 words a minute with 80% to 90% comprehension. You’re talking about on average about a 3X improvement in reading speed.
[0:08:38.2] MB: That’s staggering. I want to dig into really concretely is how you did that and how specially you maintained the comprehension, because that’s been one of my biggest struggles with speed reading is how that impacts comprehension. Before we do, I wanted to underscore one of the things you said that I thought was really interesting, which is your struggle through the current education system and more broadly how science has taught us a lot of things about how the brain learns. Yet, it seems like our society really hasn’t actually implemented any of those or taken any of them into account when crafting our educational curriculum.
[0:09:15.9] JL: Yeah. It’s a really incredible thing. I had the very blessed opportunity to sit down with Harry Lorayne, who started – I mean, if you think about Tony Buzan as the father of mind maps, or the modern father of mind maps and speed reading, Harry Lorayne is the father of mnemonic techniques. He used to go on the Johnny Carson show in the 50s and 60s, memorize everybody in the audience 1,500 names and then recite them on-air.
Talk about just someone who brought these techniques and who actually rediscovered them in many ways from the ancient Greeks who were using them. I asked him, I said, “Harry, I’ve been at this three, four years. You’ve been at this 55 years. Why is this not in schools?” He said, “Schools seem to have – they try to be progressive and they seem to have this phobia around the word memorization.”
He told me the story of how he went in to a superintendent and said, “Well, I’m an expert in memorization,” and the immediate response was, “We don’t teach memorization. Memorization is the enemy.” He goes, “Okay, well you’re teaching kids the grammatical rules of a language, you’re teaching kids how to use formulas in Algebra, how do you think those things are getting into their minds?”
I think we need to distinguish between rote memorization and actual memory. I think there is a huge problem in schools today where they shy away rightfully so from memorization, but they throw the baby out with the bath water. What we’re doing is we’re not using memory techniques, mnemonics because we’re afraid of this idea of rote memorization. When in fact, there are certain things – Pythagorean theorem you need to memorize, multiplication tables, you probably need to memorize even though every student has an iPhone in their hand at this point. Vocabulary words we need to be memorizing.
I think that’s part of the big problem. I think the other part is people just – they have no concept of how powerful and effective these tools are. Only recently have we started seeing studies that are actually testing, not drugs to enhance concentration, but actually what happens in the brain when we sit someone down, we teach them the method of loci, we teach them visual mnemonic strategies and the results have been staggering.
I think it’s really starting to become a renaissance in understanding how the brain works, and I guess we have to credit a lot of the research that’s been done around meditation over the last couple decades, because it’s really led the way in saying, “Oh, my God. The brain is so incredibly plastic.” Who would’ve thought that you can actually upgrade your brain? You can change in structure of the prefrontal cortex, you can cortical gyrification, you can change all these incredible things just by using your brain differently, in the case of meditation by concentrating on your breath for 10 minutes a day, you can actually change the physical structure of the brain and the neuro-chemistry.
I think what’s happened is once that research started to become accepted and started to become legitimate, people could then say, “Hey, we’re going to sit down 30 people and 15 of them we’re going to teach how to use a memory palace and 15 of them we’re just going to give a list of numbers to memorize and let’s see what actually happens to their brains.”
[0:12:23.2] MB: It’s funny, evolution obviously crafted our brains to learn at certain ways, and yet most of the strategies and tactics that we use both in and sort of public education, but also just in our own lives trying to learn and memorize things are almost at odds with that.
[0:12:41.0] JL: Yeah, it’s beautiful what you just said, because I like to – I joke around. A friend of mine is Robb Wolf who I also met through podcasting, and I really admire his work and I always like to tell him that what he does for diet and nutrition, I want to do for memory. I want to talk about paleo-learning, because it’s really exactly the same learning.
If you’re familiar with Robb and his work and Dr. Lauren Cordain it’s all about, let’s just – what we did with our bodies and our digestive tracts before the agricultural revolution, let’s just go back to that, because everything was a lot better when we were all eating natural, healthy, unprocessed food from nature. It’s the exact same thing with the super learning technique.
We weren’t learning in these boring rigid textbooks, we were learning in very visual and very graphic ways. We were learning around spatial awareness, which is what the memory palace technique does and why it works. We’re reconnecting everything to our pre-existing knowledge, and if you go even as far as 1955, you look at the works of Dr. Malcolm Knowles. People are starting to discover like, “Wait a minute. Adults need this connection to pre-existing knowledge. They need to understand pressing applicability to the things that they’re learning.”
It’s exactly as you said. It’s going back and it’s using our brains the way that they’re intended to be used, as opposed to the way that the industrial revolution intended, which is how do we turn out workers as fast as possible and in the most efficient way as possible for limited tasks that have limited creativity?
If you look, I mean I’m the product of great schooling and so I don’t want to completely bash the school system. It was designed very intentionally around an industrial economy that turns out worker bees. It’s rare that you find someone who develops their creativity and their entrepreneurial spirit and all these things that we today in our service economy value and prioritize and reward.
It’s very rare that someone learns that in school. They learn it at ballet practice. They learn it with mentors. They learn it with their parents at home. They learn it even with the teacher after school. Wrestling practice is where they learn that discipline and that charisma. They’re not learning it in the classroom, which was designed around a totally different set of ends that are no longer valuable to us, I think.
[0:15:08.1] MB: I’d love to hear a little bit about maybe some examples or some specific studies that talk about how the brain actually learns and what the science says about it.
[0:15:19.0] JL: Yeah, absolutely. Not too long ago, a little under a year ago, we got in our Google alerts just to get – you would think if you looked at this piece of research, that we funded it or something like that, but it was just a gift that fell into our laps. It turns out that researchers at Radboud University in the University of Netherlands had basically decided to do this study that we’ve been trying to fund on our own for quite some time.
What they did is basically they took a bunch of people, and they did a 40-day long study, with 30-minute training sessions, which is actually coincidentally exactly what’s in our market materials is study for this long for 30 minutes a day.
What they did is they taught a group of people strategic memory techniques, specifically the memory palace technique. If anyone isn’t familiar with the memory palace technique, we can go into that in more depth. If you’ve seen Sherlock, that’s the technique. It’s actually a real thing. Then they had people do rote memorization and then they gave people no memory training, whatsoever.
They gave them lists of words to try and remember. 72 words and they asked them to try and remember as many as possible. Then they came back and had the same groups of people try to without any continued training, four-months duration, tried to do the same thing.
They were trying to understand two things; number one, in the immediate term, are we actually getting better results? Are we able to immediately after learning skills for a matter of minutes or hours, are we able to improve our memorization? Four months later, if we tell these people, “Okay don’t practice. Don’t bother with,” are you actually seeing lasting effects or is it a fluke?
In tandem to that, they also studied the brains of 23 word-class memory athletes. I don’t know where they found 23 of them, because the memory athlete community is pretty small and pretty selective. 23 world-class memory athletes and 23 people similarly aged with similar health, similar IQ, but with self-described average memory skills.
What’s so exciting about the study is they actually were able to use FMRI, which is pretty new technology and leaps and bounds above what MRI imaging can do, because you can actually observe the blood flow changes that are happening in the brain in real-time. Totally huge
Here is what happened, basically they realized that the only differences between people who are memory athletes and normal people was the connectivity patterns in the brain. If you look today at an Olympian like Michael Phelps, you’re going to notice that there are some actual structural changes. In the case of Michael Phelps, he has a longer wingspan, which allows him to move water more effectively.
If you look at Olympic cyclists, they have crazy high VO2 and stuff like that. Then you’re actually seeing in many cases mutations – I don’t want to call them mutations, because people straight go to X-Men, but you’re seeing uniqueness in their physiology that is allowing them to do a lot of the stuff. Dean Karnazes, ultra-marathoner we recently had on the show, his body reacts differently to lactic acid and oxygen and stuff like that.
However, with these memory experts, all you’re seeing is that their brains know how to make connections differently across 2,500 different areas of connectivity in the brain and a specific subset of 25 connections really stood out. They were being used by the memory athletes and they were not being used by other people.
Now anyone who has studied mnemonics gets this, immediately understands, because the difference that we train in our students is number one. Well, I guess I should say out of three, number one visualization. Enhance every type of memory with visualization, visualize everything that you want to memorize. Number two, connect it to preexisting knowledge, right? That’s two arrears of the brain that we’re now lighting up.
They are not being lit up when someone else learns something new. Then number three in the study they were using as I said, the method of loci, the memory palace technique, which is a whole different part of the brain. When you’re dealing with locations and remembering specific areas and putting memories into those specific areas; in a sense, creating a visual library in your brain.
With regards to the other piece of the study really, really interesting, taking completely untrained people essentially before the training, individuals were able to recall on average 26 to 30 words. Those with the strategic memory training could recall more than double. They could recall an average of 35 more words and those who just had some short-term memory training, not specific memory palace technique, only got 30% better. They could recall 11 more words. Those who had no memory training whatsoever, just were practicing over and over and over and coming up with their own strategy, but not actual training, could remember only seven more words.
A day later, these results stayed the same. I know you guys are wondering what the hell happened four months later. Only those with the strategic training, those who actually learned the memory palace technique were able to show substantial gains. Here is what’s so cool, the same day they were able to do 35 more words on average, so over a 100%, about a 115% better performance. Four months later without even training these techniques, they still got over 22 more words per training. That’s a 80% improvement give or take. Just incredible.
Like I said, if I had begged and pleaded and funded the study myself, I couldn’t have asked for a better study, because this exactly explains what we’ve been trying to show people that it’s just a matter of using your brain the way that evolution intended, actually harnessing different parts of the brain that are being used when you’re just repeating over and over and over and over and over with rote memorization. Exactly as we say, if you train for a short period of time and it’s just 30 minutes a day, you’re essentially relearning how to use your brain and there are very, very long-lasting changes in the way that your brain works. Not so much in the structure, but actually in the way that you’re using the equipment that’s given to you.
[0:21:49.3] MB: It’s really fascinating and so interesting. I’m sure you get this all the time, but it just makes me think of how can this really have such a huge impact? For somebody who’s listening and maybe thinking to them self, “Oh, yeah. That sounds great. If I’m going to try it, it’s not really going to work.” What would you say to someone?
[0:22:06.6] JL: Yeah. I get that so much that I actually came out with a lecture recently in our program. It’s a concept. It’s around the concept that I call the Intellectual Pygmalion or Golem Effect. If anyone is familiar, anyone has studied management, the Pygmalion effect is the idea – this weird unexplainable phenomenon that came out of the Rosenthal Jacob study, which I believe, don’t quote me on this, but I believe if memory serves was 1979.
What it says is if a manager or authority figure, such as a parent, teacher or whatever believes that a student is a high-performer, is intelligent, is going to be successful, whether or not they communicate that – in fact, even if they tried to suppress their beliefs in a situation where they’re supposed to be objective, such as in academia, teachers are not supposed to show that they believe or don’t believe in a student. They’re supposed to show that they believe in every student, even if the authority figures tries to suppress that, the student will actually perform better or worse.
Better is the Pygmalion effect, the golem effect is the opposite. If I hire an employee and after the first week I start thinking, “Oh, man. What a dufus. I completely screwed up hiring this guy.” You can actually take an A performer and magically turn them into a B performer or worse. What I realized over half a decade now of teaching this stuff almost, is the same thing is happening with ourselves, that the highest authority figure to each and every one of us is our ego.
If people walk around telling themselves, and I’ve observed this in myself. If I told you Matt that I always use the memory techniques that we teach, I would be lying. Because probably five times out of 10, I don’t even use them. If it’s not a significant memory challenge, such as memorizing a 16-digit number, I’ll just say a credit card number and I’ll remember it.
Now what I realized is that something along the lines of what Harry Lorayne told me which is, even if these techniques don’t work for you, they’ll still work for you. What I realized is that just by believing that I have an exceptional and extraordinary memory by trusting my memory, I’ve flipped from the Pygmalion effect to the golem effect. My ego’s incentive, my mind’s incentive is always to prove me right.
If I’m telling myself I have a lousy memory, I’m really bad with names, or I don’t know – I hear so many of these. I get e-mails every single day, Matt. I’m a horrible language learner. I have this undiagnosed learning disability. I have always been told that I am not good at math. Those things become self-fulfilling prophecies.
I think one of the greatest side effects, if you will, of any program, whether it’s ours, whether it’s my friend Anthony Metivier, whether it’s Tony Buzan’s, any training program is people start to believe, “I have this tool in my pocket. I’m actually incredibly bright and I’m actually incredibly gifted with my memory and I actually can do this and I can remember this phone number.” People see just a dramatic switch, a really, really dramatic switch solely by believing in themselves.
I know it sounds so touchy-feely, but like I said the research backs it up and I tend to believe if a manager can influence your results, just imagine how much your own self-talk and walking around telling people, “Oh, my God. I’m such a klutz. I’m so forgetful. I have the worst memory.” Just imagine the effect that that has on you.
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Back to the show.
[0:27:07.1] MB: Let’s get into some of the specifics of how the brain is supposed to work from a memory standpoint. I know one of the things you’ve talked a bit about the picture superiority effect. I don’t know if t hat’s a piece of it, or if that’s one of the cornerstones. I’d love to hear your thoughts about that specifically, and more broadly how our brains should be learning and how we can start to learn and memorize in a way that speaks the evolutionary language of the brain.
[0:27:32.4] JL: Yes, absolutely. I will preface this by saying I’m not a neuroscientist and I don’t even pass as one on the internet. What I have been able to do is take a lot of neuroscience and a lot of research both from the soft sciences; so from psychology and stuff like that and from the hard sciences, understanding the small amounts of neuroscience that I do putt into my courses and synthesize those.
The truth is I have to say that they’re all sync up and meshed u perfectly together. We know a lot of different things about the brain, despite the fact that we know less about our brains than we do the bottom of the ocean floor. We know actually quite a bit about them. One of the things that we do know is that our brains are built in clusters, in networks. A lot of people are hearing the terms neural networks thrown around.
Many people in fact who are software developers may not even realize that that is a real thing outside of computer science. Neural networks refer to the clusters of neurons in our brains. Now our neurons are basically electrically excitable cells. We have, if I’m not mistaken, a 100 billion of them. There are more neurons in your brain than there are stars in the known universe, which is a really, really amazing thing if you think about it.
The human brain is far and away the most complex object known, which I just think is so cool. It will probably be another 100 years before we’re able to design something as complex and sophisticated as the human brain and yet, it runs on 20 watts of power.
Little aside on how amazing our brains our, these neurons are connected by synapses, which are just think of them as little electrically connective pathways. The way that they’re setup and built is essentially in clusters. The brain is highly plastic. It’s always building new connections. Every time we go to bed, it’s building connections, it’s removing connections.
You can think of your knowledge as organized in these clusters, these chunks, which are called neural networks. The way that we enhance our memory is really three-fold. I like to think of it as three-fold, and then I’ll put it into context a little bit, as far as some of the research goes and what some of the theorists on adult andragogy or learning have said.
The first thing is as you said, picture superiority effect. The way that our brains work really interesting, our strongest and most memorable scent is actually smell and taste, which are effectively the same sense. That’s because smell and scent are way older than any of our other senses. In fact, they’re hardwired directly into the brain. I believe it’s the thalamus. Again, don’t quote me on it.
That’s why if someone passes out and you put smelling salts under their nose, they will wake up, because smell is very, very deeply rooted. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help us for a lot of our learning challenges. Our second most memorable sense, which makes sense from a very evolutionary perspective is sight.
What’s going to be your most powerful evolutionary advantage, it’s probably going to be smell and taste, because so many of our ancestors died from food poisoning and bacteria and poisonous foods and poisonous spiders and God knows what. The next thing is going to be visual. How do the berries looked that poisoned the tribe? What are the colors of the enemy that I need to be aware of? Of course, location which is so closely related to visualization. Where is the watering hole? Where did I bury the food?
Both visual memory, as you said the picture superiority effect and location are deeply ingrained in us. If anyone doesn’t believe me, I challenge you to think back to your childhood home, whether or not you have been there in the last 20 or 30 years and just imagine yourself going into your parents’ bedroom, which is probably a room that you weren’t allowed into very often.
Then go to your mother side of the bed and ask yourself whether or not there was a nightstand. If so, what was on that nightstand? I’ve asked this question probably to a thousand people over the years. Every single time, even with people who tell they’re not visual learners, even with people who tell me they have lousy memories, every single time people have told me exactly what was on that nightstand, or that there wasn’t a nightstand, and in fact the dog’s bed was there. Really interesting. That’s principle one.
Principle number two, which again ties in very, very deeply with the adult andragogy theory is connecting all of our knowledge to preexisting knowledge. As I said, our brains are built on these connections and there is something called Hebb’s Law, which says that neurons that fire together, wire together. Meaning, the more connected a memory is to other memories, the stronger those connections will be and the more easy it is going to be fire that neuron when we need it.
Everything that we learn should be connected to other pieces of knowledge that we have. Malcolm Knowles as I said, suggested this. I mean, essentially he was working for three decades on his theories of adult andragogy, then 1980 finally published his four principles. One of which was that experience, including mistakes must provide the basis for learning activities.
In other words, she found that experience and connecting to preexisting knowledge is so much more relevant for adults than it is for children. Which makes perfect sense if you think that adults have so much more experience and children are able to learn just because of the novelty and newness of things that wears off for adults.
Then I would say, yeah the third thing is exactly that, is even as adults we could take advantage of novelty and newness. Our brains thrive on novelty. They’re always sensing patterns. In fact, as I said, they are the most sophisticated super computers in the known universe and their specialization, what they can do that even the most powerful super computers cannot do is pattern recognition; things like recognizing exactly what is in an image.
The reason that we all do so many captures every day is because if a piece of text is even slightly outside of what the computer expects to see, they can’t do it. Yet, a two-year-old child who spent a week memorizing the alphabet can do it. Novelty is really, really powerful for our brains. They are pattern-sensing machines. If anything falls outside of the pattern, they pay very special attention to it.
Coming back to lesson number one, we always want to be thinking a very novel and creative imagery. Then I would say as a bonus is learning how to put things into space, so learning how to use the memory palace technique and then combining all of the above. The beauty of the memory palace technique is you’re taking imagery, which is you’re putting images at what we call markers in the course, into an imagine the visual locations such as your childhood home, or your office, or whatever it might be.
You were then connecting it to that preexisting knowledge, because it is a location that you know, and they are images comprised of elements from your memory. Then you’re making things incredibly novel and unique. You’re making strange visualizations that make no sense logically, but are therefore highly memorable.
That in a sense is the way that you really take off all the boxes. You learn to structure your memories, you learn to build out deliberate neural networks, you learn obviously on top of that to do reviewing and space repetition in the right ways. It sounds so simple, but you’d be amazed that the results that you can get simply by taking advantage of these and by restructuring the way that you learn and memorize new information.
[0:35:28.9] MB: Many different pieces of that that I want to dig into. Tell me a little bit more about how do we encode our new knowledge onto preexisting knowledge?
[0:35:41.6] JL: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, why don’t we take something that we want to learn and let’s play around with it. Toss me something that I could memorize, maybe we could do a foreign language word if you want. We could do any fact. We could do numbers, figures. I guess, I could give you some foreign language words that I’ve learned over the years and we could play around with that.
[0:36:02.1] MB: Yeah. I’m down for whatever. However you want to do it.
[0:36:04.5] JL: Yeah, cool. I’ll never forget. This is one of my favorite learning stories, because I – I learned basic conversational Russian over the last couple of years. Russian is a very, very hard language, so I feel like as any foreigner, you always have to qualify. I didn’t Russian – I learned very basic Russian. I speak like a two-year-old. In any case, one of my favorite words in Russian is otkrytyy, which means open.
I like that example, because it literally sounds nothing like open. Like otkrytyy. Totally strange word. The way that I would teach a student to learn a word like that is to break it down into component elements until it’s recognizable, right? Ot and maybe krytyy. Now the beauty of using this method is if we need to use preexisting knowledge, it therefore would mean that the more preexisting knowledge we have, the easier it’s going to be to learn something.
For example, when I give this lecture in Israel and I talk about otkrytyy, it’s actually easier for people in the audience to learn, because ot in Hebrew means letter, letter as in alphabet letter. Krytyy is actually the way that you would say critical. I ask people to imagine a critical letter, the most critical letter in the alphabet and then imagine the fact that it’s opening up to give them a hug.
Now if you’re an English speaker, you can still do this. Let’s imagine we want to go with obviously very vivid, maybe even violent imagery, because it’s going to be more memorable. I want you to imagine a situation in which you’ve been, heaven forbid, stabbed. You’re holding your gut and you run up to the emergency room, and you think to yourself that it really should be open, it ought to be open, because I’m in a critical situation. You have the ot and krytyy.
Then you realize, “Thank God, it is open.” The emergency room is always open, so now you’ve encoded that meaning to maybe some preexisting image, or concept, or idea that you have about an emergency room. If you really wanted to supercharge it, you would think of maybe a specific movie or situation in which someone was stabbed. You might even think of Julius Caesar doing it, because that’s going to connect with all different ideas and knowledge that you have about stabbings and betrayal. It’s literally as easy as that. As taking a visualization that you might already have for something that seems unrelated, right? What is a stabbing have to do with the Russian word for open?
I guess, what I would stress to people is that the actual connection themselves don’t make really any difference whatsoever, so much as that you make them. You make these strange logical jumps, but just the fact that you make them is really what gets the job done. I recently built a memory palace, because I’m studying piano and music theory as well.
I needed to come up with a memory palace to have this circle of fists. I come up with the most ridiculous visualizations. For some reason, an A – the A chord for me is army guys. B is a bass strap, because it happens to be in my recording studio. It doesn’t matter. As long as I remember that a bass strap is B. I remember – I can’t say some of them, because they’re pretty indecent, but let’s see. An A sharp is only sharp, so it’s where I stand with my computer and I check the videos in the room.
Really any connection works. It doesn’t even matter. G sharp is a G-shock watch in the closet of the room. It’s just a matter of making these logical connections and connecting. I remember when I was 13 years old, these G-shock watches were considered really, really sharp and everybody wanted one. That’s when I think of a G sharp, I just get a G-shock. It’s much more memorable to remember that than trying to remember the letters G and hashtag, or pound in the corner of the room. It’s so much easier or visualize something that I already know what it looks like.
[0:40:15.8] MB: Do memory palaces get crowded? If you’re using the same image, or the same space again and again, do those memories start to get jumbled and bleed together? Especially one of the examples I’ve seen, you start doing some memory homework on my own is using the same image for numbers. After a while, I feel like it would start to get – it start to sort of bleed together and become really, really hard to inherently recall any of those memories.
[0:40:43.7] JL: That is precisely right, Matt. I always say that these techniques are a victim of their own success, in the sense that I’ve created memory palaces and then years and years and years and years later, I still remember the order. It literally works that effectively. I’ve made a mistake in the past. I was coaching my girlfriend on a Ted Talk that she had to give.
I said, “Okay, well why don’t we do it in a place that we both know.” I wasted effectively one of the best memory palaces I could use, which was a new apartment that I not so long ago moved into. Now it’s her Ted Talk and I can’t reuse it. I mean, I could if I really wanted to do the spring cleaning. I know a lot of memory athletes, in fact most of them do reuse memory palaces. That’s typically for things that they go through once in a competition.
When someone’s memorizing 24 decks of cards back-to-back, they’re using a predetermined memory palace. Or when they’re doing speed cards where they try to memorize a deck of cards and the current world record is 24 seconds, you don’t have time to build a new memory palace on the fly. They use the same one over and over.
It’s not something that they’re reviewing. Whereas, when I’m memorizing a speech, or memorizing words in the rest in vocabulary, or the circle of fist, I’m reusing that memory palace over and over and over to get to really, really, really ingrained in. Fortunately, memory palaces are free. You can create as many as you want, whenever you want. It’s very easy and you’ll effectively never run out of places.
Every shop you’ve ever gone into you can use as a memory palace, and you’ll find that so many places if I think about it there are 10 different grocery stores that I go to in my neighborhood depending on what I want to buy that day and I know the layout of all those grocery stores automatically. Most people in the audience do too.
I remember so many classrooms from my childhood, I remember all of my aunts and uncles and their houses. If not, when in doubt, I’ve met many memory champion who will just window shop. You need a new memory palace, you go in to a clothing store, you say, “Yeah, this place looks big enough.” You walk in. “Can I help you with anything?” “No, just browsing.” You just walk around and create a memory palace.
It’s really all it takes. You really don’t need more than that. In fact, people ask, “Well, what if I get it wrong? What if I forget?” It actually doesn’t matter. As long as you get it wrong consistently every single time. You can use completely fictional areas. You can use the levels of your favorite games if you have them memorized. You can use streets, cities. You can use completely fictional structures. The main point is that you always consistently remember the exact same layout and order of things.
[0:43:38.2] MB: This is going to get into the weeds, but I’m curious like how many things will you typically put into a given room of a memory palace and how do you ensure that you pull them out of that room in the right order?
[0:43:52.9] JL: It completely depends. Sometimes, I’ve coached chess prodigies who need to memories hundreds of things in a room and we’ve worked on creating structures that allow that kind of density. I’ve done simple memory palaces, like I said for a 10-minute Ted Talk, where I want to structure the information in such a way that each idea is in a room. It may end up that I have three sentences on a specific idea.
Again, you create completely artificial logic. The part where I talk about the person getting sick, well that goes in the bedroom logically. Or the part where I talk about the years of hard work I did, that goes in the office. As far as order, there is a method to the madness when you go through a memory palace. If it is something like a speech that needs to be done in order, you go along the outside walls of a room. You can do it clockwise or counter-clockwise. Personally, I like to go clockwise. But I know when I’m working with people in Israel because of the way that Hebrew is written, they like to go counter-clockwise, right to left.
A lot of scenarios by the way, if you’re memorizing vocabulary doesn’t really matter. Sometimes I’ll structure by letter. K is kitchen, O is office, B is bathroom, so on and so forth. What I’ve realized, actually a student of mine pointed it out to me is that doesn’t really help me, because there are a very few situations in which I’m searching for a B word, unless you’re writing poetry. He pointed out to me and I love it when students improve the methods and pass it back to me.
He goes, “It’s more often that you’re going to be searching for a verb, or you’re going to be searching for a specific adjective.” I mean, even in English when you’re talking, you have something right on the tip of your tongue you’re like, “What is that? What is that adjective that I need right now?” He said, “Why don’t you set it up that the entire first floor of the house is nouns, the second floor of the house is adjectives, third floor is verbs and so on.”
Since he said that, I’ve realized that that is a much better way to structure your memory palace. It actually doesn’t matter the order of things and where you put them. You just go based on the logic, right? If you have an entire floor which has the dining room, the TV room and the kitchen all in one floor, then the verb for to saute goes on the stove. The verb to cook goes to the right of the stove where the oven is. The verb for to wash goes in the sink.
Then you’re again connecting that preexisting knowledge, creating more encoded connections, because you know that that’s where you wash. Just the fact, even if I forget the actual word, I just go and I visit the sink and I go, “Okay, why the hell do I have a care bear rubbing a grasshopper on his face? Okay. Right, right, right. To wash is so and so.” Does that make sense?
[0:46:52.9] MB: That does make sense. I think the other key point that I want to underscore or understand a little bit better is how you – when you say you put a verb on these – the stove top for example, what is that verb? Like when you go and look at the stove top, what are you actually seeing?
[0:47:08.9] JL: Yeah. That was an example I just pulled out of nowhere. Why don’t we actually do it? I’m going everyone a word in Hebrew. To cook in Hebrew, every infinitive word starts with la, like in English you would say to. To cook, le veshel. La or le. I guess, in English, you would spell it L-E-V-E-S-H-E-L, le veshel.
The le, you probably don’t have to encode, but we could encode it anyway. Most likely if you’re studying the language, you would just know that that is the infinitive form. What I would do if I were relearning Hebrew is I would actually take the root. All semitic languages, again a little bit of a detour out into the weeds, but all semitic languages, like Arabic, Turkish, I believe Amharic, Farsi have this root, where if I know these three letters I can form any word around it. I can form any form of the word.
For example, cooking, like culinary cooking is bishul. I cooked, beshalti, veshalti. What else? Cook this, te vashel edze. You know based on the B, or V, the BVs, which is I chose a tough example, but based on those letters I can form anything. What I might want to do is just form a visual marker, getting back to your questions, around B-E-S-H-E-L. Are you with me so far?
[0:48:40.4] MB: Yeah, definitely. I’m trying to think about in my head, like what a visual marker would be. Maybe I’m thinking a shell of some kind, maybe wearing a lei so I could get the le part.
[0:48:52.6] JL: Perfect. Perfect. I want you to think, that’s exactly what I needed because I want to use your imagery, not my own. A lot of people ask me they’re like, “Why don’t you sell a library of images that you have an animator come up with for each language. A lot of our students want to learn biology or whatever.” I say, “It’s not going to work, because I need your imagery.” I love the idea of a lay. Let’s imagine, you go to the stove and you’re wearing a lei.
Then what you do is you actually lay down on the stove a shrimp, because you’re about to cook it. The thing is you realize that this is the best shrimp you’ve ever seen, because the shell is so bright red. Or we could even make it a lobster. Le beshel, in this case it would actually be le veshel, because the word has to change. There is a weird grammatical rule, but we’re going to go with it.
You could also just think of something with a ve. For examples, vest. You want to try and avoid encoding these extra characters. Le is perfect, ve how could we think of? This is why when I said actually the more languages you know, the easier this becomes. We want to think of something with a ve. For example, the lobster is writing a vespa, or he’s wearing a vest. Then shell is perfect, remembering that lobster is wearing a shell. Now you want to take that actual visualization, you want to put it right there on the stove, the actual stove that you’re thinking of.
[0:50:26.4] MB: Yeah, that totally makes sense. I’m envisioning slightly different thing, but I’m seeing like a giant seashell riding a vespa and I’m gently laying it on the stove top.
[0:50:35.9] JL: Yeah, just remember you want to encode the order –
[0:50:38.5] MB: That’s important.
[0:50:39.5] JL: - careful. Yeah, because otherwise you’re going to come back with ve lashel, or something like that. Ve shela. That’ a very tough word specifically. I like it when – this is always why I tell people, the more languages you learn, the easier this gets, because you have a larger library of sounds. I can’t think of anything in English that works with just ve. Let’s see, ve, ve, ve. Whereas, in Hebrew, ve it means aunt. Super easy, right?
[0:51:07.5] MB: Yeah, I was thinking maybe like a ve or like victory or something.
[0:51:11.1] JL: Yeah, that’s perfect. That’s perfect.
[0:51:14.0] MB: I think this is a good example of a visual marker and how to create one.
[0:51:17.4] JL: Exactly. Exactly. For anyone on the audience who’s wondering like, “Oh, my God. This is impossible. How is this not so much slower?” Once you’re practiced at it and a lot of what we do is actually creativity training, because a lot of these takes retooling the way you think creatively. To the point where when someone introduces himself, or herself and says, “My name is Sangita,” you immediately go to this woman sitting in a gi, which is a karate uniform in the sun and remarking, “ah.” That’s one that I just came up with. Now so you immediately get to this place very, very quickly, Sangita.
[0:51:56.9] MB: That’s a great example. There’s so much more I want to dig into about memory palaces, but I know we’re winding up on time. I want to dig in a little bit on speed reading as well, because I know that’s another area that you’re an expert in. Personally, I’m really curious, because I’ve always considered myself an auditory learner.
My fear is if I completely move away from sub-vocalization, that is going to reduce my comprehension. I think more broadly, a lot of people have that fear of if they’re going to get into speed reading, it’s going to really negatively impact comprehension and retention. I’m curious as somebody who teaches this and is an expert in it, what’s your experience been and how have you been able to in some cases, actually improve retention with speed reading.
[0:52:41.3] JL: Yeah. This is a really, really great question and one that I’ve dug into very recently for a YouTube series that we’re doing on just exactly this question, like how does speed reading work and is it actually a hoax?
What I realized is we were in a lot of ways feeding into a lot of misconceptions, because when people hear the term speed reading, they’re thinking about these Howard Berg 12,000 word a minute, or Ann Jones, 5,000 word a minute guarantees. As I dug into the research, I mean we don’t make those kinds of claims. But as I dug into the research I realized that that’s what people specifically academics think of when they think of speed reading. Most of that is bullshit. In fact, the vast majority and Jones has been tested with 5,000 words per minute.
Howard Berg claims to read 12,000 words a minute. He also went to prison for false advertising. There’s a lot of controversy around speed reading, and so I want to very clearly out front explain to people the kind of speed reading I’m about to talk about is not 5,000 words a minute, it’s not even 2,000 words a minute. It’s 600 to 800 words a minute.
Interestingly enough when you look into the academic papers and the research that are supposedly disproving speed reading, they in around about indirect and intentional way prove speed reading, because they say in our test we were only able to confirm people reading between 600 and 800 words a minute and so on and so forth.
Really interesting and we have a video coming out on our YouTube, where I analyze the most prominent paper disproving speed reading by Keith Rayner, Elizabeth Schotter, Michael Masson and so on. In any case, essentially the core claim, the core technique behind speed reading is the same no matter who you talk to, whether it’s us or the guys claiming 5,000 words a minute.
When you get up into the really fast speeds, people are claiming things like photo reading and reading an entire page at once and that’s all BS. The reasonable claims are very simple. It’s training your eyes to recognize even the stuff that’s slightly fuzzy outside of what’s called the fovea, the exact area where eyes focus. Training the brain to recognize a couple words at once even if they’re a little blurry, or even a few words, minimizing the motion of the eyes and minimizing the amount of focus that you have on the edges of the pages.
Then of course, minimizing back-skipping and most importantly the thing that everyone agrees on is minimizing sub-vocalization, or that voice that we hear in our heads. Now you said something very, very interesting Matt, which I want to touch on. It’s this idea that I worry if I completely get rid of sub-vocalization that I won’t be able to comprehend and you’re absolutely right.
We realize that our trainings were not completely clear, because we were telling people reduce sub-vocalization, reduce – when in fact, the word we should’ve been using was minimize. Minimize, but not eliminate. You cannot eliminate sub-vocalization. It’s just the way that our brains work. Because reading is a linguistic activity, you’re always going to hear some of the words in the mind’s voice.
The trick of speed reading is to try and minimize that as much as possible, because it does slow you down. We can process verbal information, auditory information at about a maximum of 340 words a minute. Some people, 400 words per minute. If you want to test this out, go on YouTube, or better yet go on something like overcast, which allows you to actually take audio beyond 2X. YouTube has realized this and so they only allow you to go to 2X.
The average person speaks at about a 140, 150 words a minute. The mass checks out. If you try to go to 3X, you’ll quickly realize that you can’t differentiate the words. Whereas, with speed reading you start at 450 words a minute, and as I said the research indirectly proves that a lot of speed readers are able to get 600, 700 and even 800 words per minute with very high comprehension. The way that you do that is in fact, minimizing, but not reducing sub-vocalization to an absolute zero.
[0:56:58.6] MB: What about for somebody’s who’s primarily an auditory learner, is that going to have a more negative impact on their sub-vocalization?
[0:57:05.6] JL: I reject the idea of someone being an auditory learner, similar to the way that I reject someone as just being inherently weak. If you take someone who’s inherently weak and you put them in a weight room and you train them on how to properly do squats and how to properly do dead lifts, they will quickly become strong.
I think the same is true of the various ways that we learn. I think many people, not to throw you under a bus here, Matt, but I think many people who claim to be auditory learners are auditory learners because they were taught in an auditory fashion. They spent most of their childhood listening to someone lecture.
Generally, when I sit down with someone like that and I teach them visual learning strategies, it’s night and day for them. With that said, I don’t completely shun auditory learning. I think it has a very valuable place for us, especially given how much we all spend in our cars and on our bikes and walking our dogs. I think it’s great to listen to audio books.
Even in the case where you are doing auditory learning, I always encourage my students to be setting markers to be doing the visual work. As you’re listening to that podcast, if there are things that you want to remember, if there are book titles that you want to note for later, create a memory palace as you’re going. Gary Vaynerchuck starts talking about one of this favorite books, create a marker for Cloud C. Hopkins. How are you going to remember that? Then put it right on the tree next to where your dog did its business, so that you’re going to remember it later, because otherwise a lot of that stuff, even for self-proclaimed auditory learners is going to go in one ear and out the other.
I think the same is true by the way when we read a book in a normal fashion. When we all just sit there and read a book, how much do we actually remember, even if we’re reading it slowly at 200, 200 words a minute, how much do you actually, actually remember three months later? Whereas, my students will flip back through that same book and go, “Oh, yeah. This is the part where Benjamin Franklin took that wheel barrel. Right. Yeah, he did say that he did—”
They will actually have archival knowledge based on the images that they’ve created and the visual linkages and the encoding of the knowledge that they’ve done. I think that’s 70% to 80% of the benefit of our program is teaching people how to use their memories properly in any situation. Whether it’s you meet five people at a conference all at once, everyone shakes hands. Four out of those five people, besides the person who’s been trained immediately forget the names. That’s one situation.
Remembering a phone number that you need when you don’t have a pen and paper, that’s another situation. Whatever it may be, I think the crucks of the method and the real value is maybe not so much even in the speed reading, so much is the ability to actually retain the information that you profess to learn.
[0:59:55.3] MB: Just focusing on our creating these visual memory anchors while you’re reading, does that slow down your reading speed?
[1:00:04.4] JL: Yes and no. We advise people to create these markers during pauses, after paragraphs, while flipping pages, in between chapters and things like that, because for most people it’s not something that you can do at once. You can’t be using the visualizations such as the brain to read and do that visualization at the same time.
With that said, I have experienced and many other people who’ve taken the course and we don’t make this guarantee, because it’s inconsistent as to when it shows up for people. After maybe six to eight months of practicing this stuff myself, the visualizations usually just come up in my mind automatically. Then it happens as I’m going from one line to the next, then I start to formulate these images as I go along. In that case, it doesn’t really slow you down.
What does slow you down is you do need to review back. We do tell people, as soon as you finish a chapter, or an idea, close the book, hold your finger where it is. If it’s a kindle, you just put it down. Review back and flip back, and that’s something that’s called spaced repetition. Then do it again when you get to the end of the next chapter. What are the last three chapters that I read? You need to be doing that review process. That does slow you down.
We also advise people to do something called pre-reading, which is where you flip through the chapter and start assessing what are going to be the different things that are going to be talked about at about eight times the speed you would normally read, but just to get an oversight and to prepare your brain for the things that you’re going to be learning. What are some of the key words? What are some of the questions that they’re going to be asking or answering? What are things that I want to look out for? What are things that raise my interest that I’m unclear on? Why is this appearing in the text? All those things do slow you down, but on average you’re still going to find that you’re reading significantly faster. They also serve to improve your focus, so you’re not back-skipping nearly as much.
[1:01:54.9] MB: Do you have any recommendation, or tactic about reading paper books versus kindles or digital reading? Is there one that’s better than the other?
[1:02:05.2] JL: Yeah. Well, let’s see I like the Kindle for a couple different reasons. Number one is I can adjust the size of the text, which is important. If you’re speed reading, you want to be able to get the text to exactly the size where two to three [inaudible 1:02:16.9], or two to three fixations are going to be fixations are going to be the right size for you.
I also think, I love the little x-ray preview feature, because I can preview it very quickly. I just tap on the pages and then I hit the X button and I’m back on the actual page itself. Then the other thing that I think is really, really, really valuable that you’re not going to get unless you’re reading digitally is I highlight. Then what I do is I highlight key areas, key points and then I just go to, I think it’s read.amazon.com/myhighlights. I just review.
Instead of actually flipping through the book and searching for my highlights, I just scroll through them. Every time I finish a book, I go through the last few books that I’ve read. Once a year, I’ll get nostalgic usually towards the end of the year and I’ll flip through all the books that I read the previous year and I’ll review. My knowledge of the books that I read, even though I read an absurd amount, like any given year I might read 20 to 40 books. My knowledge of those books versus someone else who reads at that quantity is pretty remarkably high.
If you were to quiz me on a lot of these books, I think I would do pretty well. That’s because I actually take the time to review the books, and that’s so much easier when you have them all on one webpage stored on Amazon, that all I have to do is flip through them.
[1:03:36.7] MB: What would one piece of homework be that you’d give to somebody listening who wants to maybe take an action step, or a first step towards implementing some of the strategies we’ve talked about today?
[1:03:47.2] JL: I love that you ask that question, Matt. First action step, I think is just to make the world a little bit of a better place by making some connections with real humans. It’s nice to be able to memorize all the capitals of all the countries in the world. I think what the world needs is to people to look one another in the eyes and smile and relate to other human beings just a little bit more.
The homework that I would give is to just go out today and learn the names of 10 completely random strangers. They can be the bad boy at your supermarket. They can be the person who clears your table at the restaurant. Look 10 other human beings in the eyes and smile at them and say, “Hi, I’m so and so. What’s your name?”
Then memorize those names using the techniques. Imagine Mike holding a microphone. Imagine Robert with – dressed up like Robert E. Lee. Imagine Mark dressed up as Mark Twain and see if you can remember those people’s names.
[1:04:44.8] MB: For listeners who want to dig in, learn more, find you, your books, your course etc., online, what’s the best place to do that?
[1:04:51.2] JL: Yeah. I’ll give you a couple different options here. For people who want to try out the course, we offer a completely free trial with no credit card required. People I think can take the entire first two sessions of the course. They can test their memory and reading speed and everything. They can do that if they come at superlearner.com.
For folks who want more super human optimization around nutrition and memory and productivity and lifestyle, they can go to superhuman.blog, where we put out a weekly free podcast with some of the world’s top performers, similar to yourself Matt.
[1:05:29.0] MB: Well, Jonathan thank you so much for coming on the show sharing all of these wisdom, so many practical strategies and tips. I really think that both for speed reading and this enhanced learning memory techniques etc., in many ways a meta skill that if you master that –
[1:05:45.6] JL: 100%.
[1:05:46.2] MB: It’s like a domino that makes everything easier. Makes everything more effective. It’s something I definitely personally need to step my game up on. I’m really glad that we had this conversation. In fact, I really got a lot out of it. Thank you so much.
[1:05:56.9] JL: It was an absolute pleasure. You know what, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m often quoting as saying learning is the only skill that truly matters. I believe it. I went from completely dissatisfied with who I was academically, socially and professionally to just through learning, whether it’s learning leadership skills, academic skills, business skills, financial skills, even athletic skills and picking up new hobbies. I literally was able to become someone that I’m very proud of to look in the mirror and the only difference was that I learned how to learn more effectively.
[1:06:34.7] MB: Jonathan, thanks again. Really appreciate having you on the show.
[1:06:37.5] JL: My pleasure. Take care.
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